Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Baton Rouge, LA, 8/23/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Baton Rouge, Louisiana
11:13 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Baton Rouge, where the President will visit a region and a community that was ravaged by historic flooding just over a week ago.
Last week, the President received regular updates on the situation and the response. He telephoned Governor Edwards and issued a disaster declaration to expedite federal assistance to the area. The President also dispatched FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to the region to make separate visits to see the impact of the flooding firsthand and ensure that federal resources were being deployed effectively to support the ongoing efforts of states and local officials who are leading the response.
The federal efforts, thanks in no small part to the experience and expertise of Administrator Fugate, have been praised by Democratic and Republican Louisiana officials alike. There’s new information out this morning that illustrates the speed and effectiveness of the federal response. In less than two weeks, more than $120 million in federal assistance to affected individuals has been approved. This will help with things like buying groceries, urgent home repairs, and even temporary housing assistance to those who need it.
So this is a strong and early indication that the United States government is determined to support the people of Baton Rouge in their time of urgent need. And part of the President’s message today is that the federal government will be here long after national media attention has faded.
We’ll have additional details about the President’s trip over the course of the day, but the President will have an opportunity to visit a neighborhood that was damaged in the flood. He’ll have a chance to offer some comfort to individuals whose lives have been upended. He’ll discuss the recovery with state and local officials to learn if there is more that FEMA can and should be doing to support the state and local response.
He'll also thank first responders who acted heroically to save lives at the height of the flood. Some of these first responders have even continued to work long shifts even as their own lives and families have been affected by the flooding. That reflects the spirit of this community and of the country. And that's the essence of what makes the President so confident that with continued tenacity, skill and attention to detail, this community will rebuild and come back stronger than ever.
So we're obviously limited in how much detail about the President’s activities today we can share in advance because of the security constraints. We've also gone to great lengths to try to minimize the impact of the President’s visit on ongoing response and recovery efforts. But over the course of the day and as the President engages in some of these conversations and some of this activity, we'll try to keep you apprised of what exactly the President is doing.
So, with that, why don't we talk about the trip or anything else that might be on your minds today.
Q Do you have an estimate yet of the damage on a large scale from FEMA or anybody else?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen a formal estimate at this point about what will be needed to rebuild after this historic flooding event. Obviously FEMA officials have some expertise that they bring to that kind of damage assessment. They’ll be working closely with state and local officials to reach that kind of determination. But I haven't seen those numbers at this point, but obviously as we have that kind of information, it's something that local official in coordination with FEMA -- they’ll be responsible for disseminating that information.
Q Josh, on the $120 million figure, you said it's approved. Does that mean it's actually been paid out, or what does that mean?
MR. EARNEST: Some of it has been paid out, and some of it has been approved, so it's sort of in the midst of being paid out. And again, it's an illustration of the variety of forms of assistance that the federal government can make available to affected individuals in short order. It certainly is not the entirety of the assistance that individuals may be eligible to receive.
There are other forms of assistance that take a little bit longer to process and will also be available. In some cases, that includes low-interest loans, and in some cases, that isn't just through FEMA. The Small Business Administration, for example, has a disaster relief program where they can make short-term, essentially bridge loans to small businesses to help them through these kinds of situations. Those typically aren't grants, but they are extraordinarily low-interest loans that can mean the difference between a small business going under and a small business being able to survive in the aftermath of a disaster like this.
Q Without giving too much detail about the neighborhood, can we just say -- is it a Baton Rouge neighborhood? Is it a neighborhood outside of Baton Rouge?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that this is a neighborhood in East Baton Rogue Parish. But we'll have more detail once we've arrived in the neighborhood.
Q The President’s response to people who say this is politics, this is optics -- is he dismayed by it? Has he just gotten used to the fact that people make that argument all the time? What does he make of all this?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is used to people trying to score political points even in situations where they shouldn’t. And the President certainly believes this is the kind of situation where when we're talking about lives lost, when we're talking about a community being upended, that it's an appropriate time to put politics aside and actually focus on our responsibilities as Americans.
And, look, I think the truth of the matter is most people in Louisiana are doing exactly that. And, again, officials in both parties in Louisiana have talked about the effective working relationship among state, local and federal officials who are trying to provide assistance to people who need it. And that, frankly, is the approach that the President is taking. And he believes that’s where our attention should be. And that certainly has characterized the response that we've seen from the federal government, including the response that you've seen from the President, personally.
Q -- expectation surprising when the Lieutenant Governor makes a comment like that, or is basically supportive of the federal response -- is it surprising that you get a response like that?
MR. EARNEST: The Lieutenant Governor is a good illustration. He’s the highest-ranking Republican official in the state of Louisiana, and he has now on at least two occasions talked about how pleased he has been thus far at the federal response.
I want to caution throughout this thing, throughout this discussion, that the early quick response is really important, but the success of the recovery effort is going to require a long-term focus. And the President is certainly mindful of that. People of FEMA are mindful of that. And that will be part of the President’s message today.
But, look, the Lieutenant Governor of the state of Louisiana has a responsibility to the people who elected him, and people in his state are suffering right now. And I think he’s taken the right approach, which is to say, I've got lots of political disagreements with the President of the United States, but what I'm most interested in is seeing the President of the United States prioritize the safety and livelihood of the people in my state.
That's what the President of the United States has done, and that certainly is what FEMA has done. That's what other senior administration officials have done. And the Lieutenant Governor of the state of Louisiana has acknowledged that. And I think he’s acknowledged that in the hopes that the attention on this issue at the federal level will continue. And I can assure him today, standing here on the plane with the President of the United States, that that attention will continue and will persist in the weeks and months to come.
Q Josh, on the $120 million, is there a way to get a breakdown of where that money is going sometime today? And you said it's been approved, and I want to follow up just a bit. When do people start receiving it? Is it days, weeks, months? Can you walk us through that a bit?
MR. EARNEST: We'll have more details on this. What I can tell you is that some of those payments have already been made. There are people who have had to flee their homes. They’ve been inundated with water and their homes are no longer livable. So there are some people who are staying in local hotels, or have had to seek housing in other places. And there is money that's gone out the door to assist them, to pay for that temporary housing.
That's an example of some money that's gone out the door already. There are other people who -- they’ve got small children at home, and they have to go buy diapers for their kids, and the diapers that they kept in the nursery have been inundated by flood waters, so they need money to be able to go and buy those diapers. That is the kind of assistance that can be provided by FEMA.
And again, that urgent need needs to be met, and we're gratified that early indications are that that need is being met. But families whose homes have been destroyed, or at least sustained significant damage, are going to need more than a week’s supply of diapers to rebuild and to come back. And so that's one illustration of how we need to make sure that we're not just focusing on the urgent needs, as important as they are, but that we're also following through with the longer-term assistance that will be required to get the people of this community back on their feet.
But in terms of how much money has gone out the door at this point, FEMA may be able to provide you some more detail on that. But obviously this is a very dynamic situation and they’re working to process requests for assistance as quickly as they possibly can to get that money out the door. So some funding has gone out the door. A whole bunch of -- a significant sum of money has also been approved to get those payments out the door. So this is something that they’re moving through quite rapidly.
One other point that I would make here is -- and this is something that you’ve heard from state and local officials, as well -- there’s an important role for the private sector to play here, too. And I know that there are large companies that have made substantial donations to this effort, and we want to keep that kind of charitable work moving.
There’s an opportunity for the American people to make a contribution to this effort through the Red Cross. And the Red Cross obviously has a lot of expertise in these kinds of situations, and so we obviously would encourage people to support the Red Cross as they provide badly needed assistance, as well.
There’s an opportunity for us as a country to come together, not just through government institutions, to offer some support, but the Red Cross obviously does important work and there are other large companies that have stepped up to the plate to offer some assistance, too. And we obviously want to thank them for their generosity and encourage people to continue to consider making that kind of contribution, again, to a community that’s been hit really hard by a historic flooding event, even if it wasn’t a named storm.
Q It sounds like donations to this event have been lower than they have for some other natural disasters in recent years. Is that going to be part of the President’s message today, to try to change that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think part of the President’s message is going to be not just to the people of Baton Rouge that the American people stand with them, but also a reminder to people all across the country that when any American community takes a hit, we come together as a country to support them, and there are a variety of ways that we can do that. And we can certainly do that by mobilizing an effective federal government response. We can also do that by people considering what they can do on their own time and what sort of financial contributions they can make of their own free will to support this ongoing effort.
And again, the Red Cross is an institution that’s got a lot of expertise, and unfortunately, they’ve got a history of meeting the needs of people in Louisiana who have been hit by bad storms. So I would expect that you will hear the President encourage the American people to consider what they can do to support the people of Baton Rouge and the people of Louisiana in this difficult time.
Ayesha, did you have a question?
Q Can you talk about long-term support for the people of Baton Rouge and the people who have been affected by this storm? Do you have any sense of what that will mean in terms of funding? Some Louisiana lawmakers have said that maybe Congress will need to appropriate some more funds; that because of the extensive damage, that you’re going to need more than kind of regular response and more than regular funding that's been doled out. So does the administration have any sense of the amount of funding that would be needed, or whether Congress will need to do -- step up and appropriate any funds?
MR. EARNEST: To answer your question directly, not yet. We don’t have a sense yet of exactly how much federal assistance will be required to ensure the full recovery of the community of Baton Rouge, to ensure this community can come back stronger than ever. It’s unclear at this point whether a separate, standalone supplemental funding request will be required.
I suspect that will be part of the conversation that the President has today when he talks to the Governor, when he talks to parish officials, when he talks to congressional representatives who may be along for the trip, as well. So I think it’s too early to say. None are on the plane. They’re obviously back in Louisiana for the recess, but I would expect to see some congressional representatives around today. And as they appear, we’ll make sure that you’re aware of it.
Q On one other topic -- some Republicans have indicated that they’d be willing to work with Secretary Clinton, if she’s elected, to fix -- their words -- Obamacare. Does the President think that that would be something that he would view positively if changes are made to Obamacare in a new Democratic administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that would obviously reflect a remarkable reversal on the part of Republicans, who, to this point, have dedicated the last six or seven years of their legislative agenda to trying to tear down the Affordable Care Act. They have utterly failed in that effort. Some might even describe it as a colossal waste of time. But we’ll let voters make that assessment.
The President has indicated since the very first Affordable Care Act vote was taken in Congress that he was prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans who had good ideas for strengthening the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many Republicans come up with ideas to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. There’s lots of rhetoric about tearing down the Affordable Care Act, but certainly never any alternatives to the Affordable Care Act -- something that many Republicans have spent a lot of credibility promising, but that has been -- credibility that’s been flushed down the proverbial toilet here because that’s something that Republicans have never mustered.
So I think the President would welcome a renewed, genuine commitment on the part of Republicans to work in bipartisan fashion to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, expand access to Medicaid, and to further strengthen marketplaces and other reforms to the program that would continue to hold down growth in health care costs and continue to expand access to quality, affordable coverage for Americans across the country.
Louisiana is actually a state where we saw the Democratic governor do the right thing and expand access to Medicaid in the state of Louisiana in a way that has expanded access to health care for hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana. We would welcome additional Republican governors across the country making a similar commitment and taking a similar step. But when it comes to Congress, we would certainly welcome bipartisan efforts to strengthen Obamacare even after President Obama has left office.
Q The Vice President is in Latvia this morning, and when doing a family photo with the President there -- the Estonian President -- he made a comment about a presidential candidate who doesn’t understand Article 5 of NATO. Do you think -- does the White House think that this is appropriate for the Vice President to be injecting presidential campaigning into an official meeting overseas? And if so, why?
MR. EARNEST: Vice President Biden is in Latvia today. He will have an opportunity to meet with the Presidents of all three Baltic countries while he’s in Latvia. The President did something similar when he traveled to Tallinn in Estonia a couple of years ago. President Obama met with the three Baltic Presidents and reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which commits the United States and all of our NATO allies to coming to the defense of the Baltic countries if they come under attack by anyone, including Russia.
Because of the size of the Baltic countries and because of the border they share with Russia, they’re justifiably concerned about some of the provocative actions that we’ve seen from Russia in the last few years. And President Obama has made clear that it is dangerous to raise any doubts about the U.S. commitment to our NATO allies.
I’ll say again that the U.S. commitment to our NATO allies is ironclad. The U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty is ironclad. And there should be no confusion about that. And I didn’t see the entirety of the Vice President’s remarks, but I’m confident that his remarks were an effort to clear up any confusion that may exist on this front. And some of that confusion may stem from some of the rhetoric that we’ve seen on the campaign trail. That’s unfortunate, because the President has been crystal-clear about our country’s ironclad commitment to our NATO allies. That is a commitment that transcends presidencies; it transcends political party. And the Vice President’s trip there was another indication of that ironclad commitment on the part of the United States.
Q Are we at a point where presidential politics is now part of official business overseas when it comes to issues like this?
MR. EARNEST: I think when it comes to issues like U.S. commitment -- the U.S. commitment to our NATO allies, it’s important for everyone to understand -- both our allies and our potential adversaries -- that the U.S. commitment to our NATO allies is ironclad. Vice President Biden’s trip there is as good an illustration as you can have about that kind of commitment.
And during the President’s trip to Poland for the NATO Summit there was a discussion about additional military commitments that NATO allies were making to the Baltics. Germany, Canada and the UK committed to deployment of additional forces on the ground in each of those Baltic countries under the NATO umbrella to demonstrate our continued commitment to the mutual self-defense of our Baltic allies. The United States is committed to deployment of additional troops into Poland for the same purpose.
So our commitment to our NATO allies is ironclad. And again, to the extent that there is any rhetoric that might leave people wondering about that commitment, the Vice President’s trip and his statement today should clear up any of that lingering confusion to the extent there is any.
Q The President is not going to the Clinton Global Initiative this year.
Q That's good. (Laughter.) Is he 100 percent confident in the work of the Clinton Global Initiative and all of the management questions and financial questions that have been raised? Is there anything that has made him less than 100 percent confident in the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation work?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President is familiar with the extensive, excellent work that has been done by the Clinton Global Foundation in the United States and around the world, and that’s why the President has been proud to be a part of previous efforts to raise attention and awareness about the good work of the Clinton Global Foundation.
The President, of course, can’t speak to everything that happens at the foundation. I’ll let my counterparts at the foundation do that. But there’s no denying the way that the lives of millions of people around the world, including people in the United States, have benefitted from the excellent work by the professionals at the Clinton Foundation. And that’s why the President has been proud to speak there in the context of previous events. The last couple of years, the President has not had time on his schedule to appear at the Clinton Global Initiative.
11:37 A.M. EDT